Flashing lights and high tempo music herald the start of On The Ropes, the dramatisation of the life of Vernon Vanriel (Mensah Bediako), a lightweight boxer who was ranked number two in England from 1983 to 1984.
Vanriel was a child of the Windrush generation, fiercely proud to be British, and a Tottenham boy at that. A flamboyant fighter, he championed music from his heritage at his matches and was loved by the crowds. Unfortunately his fighting spirit was matched by outspoken opinions, which led to him being side-lined by the white boxing elite. A cocaine habit later meant he was left with nothing and he went to visit family in Jamaica for two years in the belief that he had the right to remain in Britain. Unbeknownst to many, government policy changed and in a Kafkaesque dead end he was unable to return to the UK without a valid passport or fight his claim to British citizenship without being in London. Stateless for 13 years, he lived rough at significant cost to his physical and mental health, before pressure on the government finally bore success.
The first half of the performance follows Vanriel’s storm to success, with the boxing ring taking centre stage: both a structure for his fights and a metaphor for his later struggles. Pulled apart for the second half, the physical fracture of the arrangement is a manifestation of his complete breakdown and the composition of the narrative works well, each chapter of his life presented as a boxing round. Performed by just three actors, Jamaican music is a companion throughout the piece, uplifting the audience, who join in at points. Bediako plays Vanriel throughout with Amber James and Ashley D Gayle labelled as chorus. Accurate this may be, but it in no way portrays their prowess as both move through identities, personalities and ethnicities, their accents adapting as they go. Support to the main man, their vocal capabilities at times overpower Bediako’s, who is nonetheless moving and convincing in his journey from child through impressive athlete to an old man in ill health. Much of the script is delivered in rhyming couplets and the fluidity of delivery reinforces the musicality of the piece.
This is a performance about being human and arbitrary injustice that is fiercely relevant today. Co-written by Vanriel himself on returning from his self-termed banishment, it is as much a howl of defiance and will to survive as it is an account of the appalling treatment suffered by the Windrush generation. The fusion of the music throughout the piece marks the emotional changes whilst preventing mawkishness. This is a long play, but the trajectory of the story deserves the detail, and certainly from where I sat the audience were enthralled throughout, as we lived every emotion with the actors.
You can read more about this play in our recent interview with director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour here.
Written by: Vernon Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland
Directed by: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour
Lighting Design by: Holly Ellis
Produced by: The Production Exchange and Park Theatre
On The Ropes plays at Park Theatre until 4 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.